Sunday, 1 May 2011

In Praise of Savagery - good writing vs the real world

In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns (The Friday Project, 2011) A novel describing the adventure of Wilfred Thesinger as he attempted to be the first man to chart a certain river in Africa; a river that was surrounded by tribes renowned for killing everyone that had tried to follow it previously. The author followed in his footsteps decades later.
First and foremost, huge congratulations to Gateshead RFC on winning the league in dramatic circumstances yesterday. Hugely deserved.
In celebration of a heroic achievement, a look at a book that follows another one.
I have a habit of underlining sentences or passages in books that I particularly enjoy. The words that scream out of the rest of the page and make you pause a little. It doesn’t happen in every book, and rarely more than a couple of times in a single book. But when it does, I like to mark it. I like to think I’ll go back to it one day and remember the effect it had on me the first time. In reality, it’s probably just a little bit of a pretentious tick. (Insert obvious joke here).
Either way, this book presented me with a bit of an "underlining" problem. About half way through, I hit upon about three pages, all of which jumped out and made me stop to think. No other way to put it – it was just beautiful. Effortlessly beautiful. And of course, I couldn’t underline all three pages. Damnit.
Luckily, that wasn’t the only great passage in the book. I underlined a couple of other, shorter ones instead.
Warwick Cairns writes incredibly well. He doesn’t simply tell you what happens, he uses his experiences to spark off tangents that you end up willingly riding along on. He packs the book with these tangents, each of which brings into life an entirely new area of thought. Because of this, the book stays fresh throughout.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say the story ended up getting in the way a little. I loved the detours Cairns took in his writing, but when he re-centred onto the story itself, I found myself drifting a little. There’s no doubt that Thesinger is an amazing man who did amazing things, but I found the descriptions of his journey and of Cairns’ own adventures a little static. A list of thing that happened, one after the other.
Perhaps it suffered a little from the richness of the detours. When placed next to Cairns’ wandering mind, the pedestrian pace of just describing stuff that happened became a little frustrating. It’s a tough criticism. Cairns couldn’t simply write 200-odd pages of “stuff that I think.” At some stage, he needed to put “stuff that happened” in there. And the material he chooses is pretty spectacular. But for me, it didn’t really hold me interest. I sped through those bits, waiting for another detour.
So a massive positive tick for his writing style and his imaginative tangents, but an important caveat in the rather less inspiring real world descriptions. Together, that makes...
Classic sit on the fence score. It’s a good book, and it’s well written, and I enjoyed it. I’ll probably go back and have a flick through some of the more sparky pages at some stage. But I can’t help but think it could have been a lot better.

p.s. a special thanks to my secret source that helped me get hold of the paperback version of this book ahead of publication.

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